Review: King Lear at The Globe

Looking around at my fellow bard buddies standing in the yard for King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe, it’s a motley crew. Couples on questionable first dates, unknowing tourists, and groups of friends who maybe aren’t actually friends but Bethan from the office booked these tickets months ago and really, we should go, it’ll be… fun?

I joined this merry gang on Saturday evening for the third performance of King Lear, which much like a third date feels like safe territory: the early awkwardness and nerves have gone, with a lingering enthusiasm to impress. It certainly didn’t feel like a performance fresh out of rehearsals, and the cast are full of energy for what is an undeniably physical performance. Early on, a foppish Edgar falls down some stairs and I’m still not sure if that was intentional physical comedy or ‘my legs hurt and I’ve forgotten how to climb’ from the otherwise remarkable Joshua James. 

We can all agree that Shakespeare is great, King Lear is top 5, and over three hundred years of critical analysis does not need a further contribution from me. It’s a bloody good play, and a personal favourite. To the un-initiated, Lear is best understood as an examination of power – bear with me – in mankind, royalty, family bonds, and nature. Across a diverse five acts, we watch King Lear disintegrate mentally, having devolved his kingdom between his daughters, and descend into madness as the world around him grows in chaos and confusion.

Deceit is a central concept in Lear and a potential roadblock to any great production. Edgar and Edmund - sons of Gloucester and the juiciest side plot both spend much of the play either lying or blatantly pretending to be someone else. Not to forget Lear’s transformation into an unrecognisable madman, loyal Kent’s transformation into Caius, and a Fool who is anything but, it can be hard to keep up. Assume everyone is lying and you’ll get by. 

In taking on these challenges - which mean that Lear is not performed as regularly as many of the classics  – this Globe production is commendable. The choice to use the central characters in ensemble roles is perhaps unnecessary and muddies the waters, but clear costume distinction from neutral taupe to jewel tones smooths the transition. On the same note, the set design is remarkably muted (think literal beige tarpaulin covering the stage) but used thoughtfully. Throughout, characters tear away great sheets of fabric, revealing the glossy marble façade. An obvious trick perhaps – as the characters gain clarity the stage itself becomes clearer!! – but a nice touch with very limited resources. *cough* Artistic Director Emma Rice not being allowed to use modern design and lighting techniques *cough*.  

With a text that is already exceptional, and set and costumes which do little to hinder even if they do not enhance, the weight of this Lear falls on the cast, whom are largely excellent. Kevin McNally is an absolutely OK Lear, but save your attention for the youngest cast members, notably those in the roles of Edmund (Ralph Davis), Edgar (Joshua James) and Cordelia (Anjana Vasan). Davis in his first role out of RADA is outstanding, so much so that Edmund feels like the protagonist in this Lear, his energy and delivery bringing more depth to the character than I’ve seen before. Bouncing off an equally brilliant James, the pair are the true centre of this production, and a joy to watch together.

As I was heading to see this Lear, aware of my impending three and a half hours standing around, I told myself I’d give it an hour and cut my losses. Any production at The Globe that retains the majority of the standing audience after the interval is doing well, and I didn’t see anyone leave. King Lear is easily the best £5 you’ll spend this summer, and if this gym-phobic writer can withstand the elements, you’ll be peachy. Soak up one of Shakespeare’s greatest commentaries on the nature of man for the price of a tepid London pint, I dare ya.

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